I was bothered in Phenix City Story and Kiss Me Deadly by the fact that things looked so 1950s, so cookie-cutter and bland, but here, in The Ladykillers, there’s something about its distinct 1950sness that feels warm and good and reminds me of when I’d sleep at my grandfather’s apartment as a kid, during my parents’ occasional date night, and I’d stay up until 1 or 2 in the morning watching Nick at Nite, with its re-runs of sitcoms from the 1970s and ‘80s that I’d never heard of but that looked soft, and that felt—even as a kid—somehow innocent.
The Ladykillers is another “Ealing Comedy,” a small genre of dark dry movies churned out by Ealing Studios in the UK between about 1947 and 1957 (according to Wikipedia), and of which we’ve so far seen Whisky Galore!, Kind Hearts and Coronets, and The Lavender Hill Mob—all of which are absolutely delightful and, at times, hilariously funny, albeit in a subtle way, very British and clever, that doesn’t make you laugh out loud so much as smile really hard and make some noise from the back of your throat.
This one, like the previous two, also stars Alec Guinness, best-remembered for his role as Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original Star Wars trilogy but whose comedic brilliance, his deadpan, is I think up there with Buster Keaton’s and W.C. Fields’s. Here he plays Professor Marcus, the mastermind of a heist for which he’s recruited a bunch of accomplices including a boyishly young Peter Sellers and Peter Lom (both of whom would go on to be best-remembered for their roles in The Pink Panther movies), and the gag is that the criminals, after successfully pulling off the heist, end up killing each other, one-by-one, in a series of betrayals and what might technically be a comedy of errors.
It feels progressive for its darkness, same as Kind Hearts and Coronets (which is funnier than this one but also downright nihilistic); but, as with both of those movies, The Ladykillers is a product of its generation, and beholden to the same censorious narrative conventions that, in the United States as well, demanded no villain be rewarded, that justice find and unravel even the most compelling and generous antagonists; and thus our entire cast of villains find their good fortune reversed by film’s end.
It’s an interesting trend with these Ealing Comedies: they want to show the villain succeeding, whether it’s in pulling off a heist or, in the case of Kind Hearts, murdering an entire family line. The only way to show them succeeding, though, is to feature that success in the middle and then unravel it later on.
The Coen brothers re-made this movie in 2004 and, when I first saw it in high school, it became one of my favorite comedies. I couldn’t get anyone to watch it with me, though, and so I’d quote Tom Hanks’s “Professor”—which is both heavily-indebted to and totally distinct from Guinness’s own turn with the role—and people would just think I was talking nonsense. I still think the remake is funny, and distinctly a Coen Brothers Movie, but I recognize that it isn’t as good as this Ealing version, which is more clever and somehow inherently funnier by merit of its claustrophobia, the fact that these guys are chasing each other through such a tiny space.
That being said, if I had to watch the original or the remake while looking for a laugh, I’d go for the remake.
But is that because the 2004 version is American, and I’ve got a crude, flashy, explicit American sense of humor?
Is English comedy more refined, more clever?
I think these Ealing Comedies are the only English comedies to’ve appeared on the List, so I can’t really use them as a basis for evaluating the culture’s sensibility, but I wonder: if I went and did a similar Project to this one and watched, say, the hundred greatest English comedies, would I develop an ear for their humor? Is The Ladykillers even supposed to be laugh-out-loud funny, or were English audiences kinda just chuckling at the screen when this first premiered, same as I did?
Go back to my pieces about those other Ealing movies, though, and you’ll see that I don’t have much to say about them and I think that’s also an issue I’ve got with other cultures’ comedies: I don’t know how to talk about them. Like I can regale you with a synopsis, and tell you that Peter Sellers shows all the promise you’d imagine, and that Alec Guinness disappears into his toothy character just as he disappeared into the prosthetics of all those other characters in Kind Hearts—but what else? Not everything can be thought-provoking, but I get bent outta shape when something isn’t because I feel like it’s my responsibility to bring some cerebral or emotional stuff to the table. The novelist Norman Mailer said that, for a writer, a personal experience is like a many-sided crystal. You project the light of your imagination through that crystal and get a hundred different shapes and glinting figures from the other side.
Watching any of these movies on the List, I feel like I should be able to shine the light of my whatever, my intelligence or imagination or pathos, through the thing, the crystal of it, and get project something interesting on the opposite wall.